Jeff Okudah. CeeDee Lamb. K’Lavon Chaisson. Jalen Reagor. Kenneth Murray. Jordyn Brooks. Jeff Gladney.
Seven players drafted in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft hail from the state of Texas, including five from the Big 12, but for the fifth time in the last five years, none of those first-round picks suited up for the Texas Longhorns in college.
By the time that safety Brandon Jones was selected in the third round by the Miami Dolphins, 13 players from the Lone Star State were already drafted. When the seven rounds concluded, only three Longhorns were selected among the 33 Texans.
Not every program that produces a large number of draft picks in a given year is guaranteed success — 10 Michigan players were selected more than eight years after the last time that the Wolverines defeated their rival Buckeyes. In fact, after a 6-7 season, Texas produced five draft picks in 2015, the largest number of Longhorns selected since the 2010 draft included six players from the team that appeared in the national championship game.
And there are enough prospects in Texas that some overlooked recruits will eventually develop into first-round talent.
However, recruits view the NFL Draft as a measurement of how well a coaching staff can develop its talent. The SEC’s incredible draft success will only further bolster success on the field.
Those recruits aren’t wrong, either — from the big-picture perspective, the draft is a reckoning for a program’s ability to evaluate and develop. The top-tier programs that do both of those things well tend to have success on the field because of the NFL talent that they produce.
In the case of Texas, recent draft results are indicative of a program that suffered significant attrition in the 2016 recruiting class and then signed a small transition class after head coach Tom Herman arrived in Austin. To some extent, then, the draft failures for the Longhorns are about the long-term trajectory of the program rather than an indictment of the current staff.
Consider that increased attrition is a common result of coaching changes — 13 of the 29 signees in the 2016 class transferred from the program and several others took medical retirements. Multiple players who remained at Texas never became significant contributors.
And while defensive tackle Jordan Elliott’s transfer to Missouri allowed him to become an early entrant into the draft and a third-round selection, none of the other signees from that class are on track to become NFL draft picks. With another strong season, it’s possible that SMU quarterback Shane Buechele becomes a Day 3 pick, but his physical limitations will likely make him an undrafted free agent and long-shot roster candidate.
So the efforts by head coach Tom Herman to facilitate culture change in the early months of his tenure resulted in only one transfer that impacted the program’s future NFL Draft results. That’s a positive.
In fact, Elliott and Florida offensive tackle Jean Delance were the only two transfers from that class to land at Power Five programs — the recruiting efforts of Charlie Strong and his staff in that class received an indictment in that regard.
So what about the transition class in 2017?
After in-depth studies of transition classes and the attrition that normally results from a lack of due diligence with recruits, Herman and his staff took a small class of 18 signees that attempted to find players who would stick in the program. By National Signing Day, the group barely managed to salvage a top-25 class that only included one of the top 20 players in the state — quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
With only two transfers from that group, Herman has largely managed to keep the class together, but in terms of the NFL Draft, the timing was massively unfortunate, as the 2017 recruiting class in Texas produced high-level NFL talent in the 2020 draft class and will continue to produce high-level talent in the 2021 draft class.
The recruitment of Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who went with the 17th pick to the Dallas Cowboys, revealed just how badly Strong and his staff botched the end of their tenure. An early Sooners pledge, Lamb decommitted months before he signed, but still didn’t receive an offer from the Longhorns until Herman arrived. By that time it was too late and Oklahoma benefited from one of the best receivers in the country.
Things with Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray were a little bit different. Texas pursued him, but the on-field struggles for the Longhorns were a deciding factor, as Murray explained to Burnt Orange Nation last summer at Big 12 Media Days without wasting words — he chose the Sooners because he wanted to win. Not only did the last several years prove Murray correct, but his beliefs illustrated how perception can quickly become a self-fulfilling reality in recruiting.
Recruits like Brooks and Gladney were simply undervalued during the recruiting process, with Gladney standing as an example of the type of East Texas product that TCU head coach Gary Patterson has consistently found, landed, and developed. While the offer list and development of Gladney unquestionably indicate that a number of programs missed on the New Boston product, it’s understandable to the extent that he tested much better at the NFL Combine (4.48 40-yard dash, 37.5-inch vertical) than he did in high school (personal-best 11.15 100m).
Still, one of the stark differences between successful evaluators and unsuccessful evaluators is the ability to find and project raw athleticism, especially in areas of the state that aren’t as highly recruited as the major cities. In that regard, Herman and his staff have made an effort to evaluate prospects in person, whether that’s through camps on the Forty Acres or satellite camps in Texas and other parts of the country. Consider that a temporary positive until more information is available.
Moving forward, the 2020 NFL Draft, and the 2021 NFL Draft to a slightly greater extent, also highlight some of the recruiting misses by Herman and his staff in their limited time at Texas before National Signing Day in 2017.
The recruitment that qualifies as the most painful in that regard is that of Chaisson. Targeted early by Herman and his staff at Houston, the relationships developed before the transition to Texas were instrumental in giving the Longhorns a shot to land Chaisson in the final moments of the 2017 cycle. In fact, there were even reports at the time that Chaisson gave a verbal commitment to Texas.
As the Longhorns went down the stretch with Chaisson, the willingness to allow Tigers cornerback commit Kary Vincent Jr. to take an official visit with Chaisson ultimately proved disastrous — as Vincent recounted before Texas and LSU met in Austin last year, he took the official visit with the intentions of recruiting Chaisson to the Tigers and bad-mouthing the Longhorns.
Hosting committed prospects late in the cycle is a risky endeavor.
Without Chaisson, Texas struggled to rush the quarterback from the edge over the last several years. Perhaps the scheme of former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was always doomed by relying too much on blitzing, but it’s also reasonable to wonder if a first-round talent like Chaisson might have been enough to save Orlando’s job and position the Longhorns as a Big 12 contender last year or even as the Big 12 champion the year before. The decision to play Joseph Ossai as an inside linebacker at times in 2019 would certainly look a lot different with Chaisson terrorizing offensive tackles.
Or, imagine the Longhorns offensive line over the last three years with Walker Little playing outside. Another Houston product and a top-10 recruit nationally, Little considered Texas, but ultimately decided that the best decision for his future was going to Stanford. He’s now a projected first-round pick in next year’s draft.
The bottom line is that coaching changes produce those type of results — not only in the transition class, but also in causing attrition in the previous class, which often ends up revealing the program failures that necessitated the coaching change in the first place.
In the 2021 NFL Draft, but more acutely in the 2022 NFL Draft, the focus will start moving towards the evaluation and development at Texas under Herman. So far, the results are mixed.
Multiple mock drafts have safety Caden Sterns and junior left tackle Sam Cosmi selected in the first round to break the longest Texas drought in the modern era. The two players highlight important successes in the Herman era — the recruiting win by flipping Sterns from LSU and the evaluation and development of Cosmi as a player who didn’t rank among the top 1,000 recruits or top 100 offensive tackles nationally.
The pure talent signed in the 2018 and 2019 classes also provides some hope for future NFL Drafts, but the greatest cause for concern is that Herman had to fire seven of his 10 assistants after the 2019 season, including many of the assistants that he brought with him from Houston to Texas. As Herman has said multiple times publicly since then, those terminations were largely a result of his coaches failing to develop the talent they recruited.
If the new staff suffers from similar developmental failures, not only will Texas struggle to produce NFL Draft talent at the rate of top programs nationally, but there could be another coaching change in Austin that further sets the program back thanks to attrition and another transition class.